Translated with an introduction by D. R. Gayton
“I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness”
On the evening of December 5, 1873, a young medical student and poet by the name of Manuel Acuña returned to his dorm room after a long day of excursions with his good friend and fellow medical student, Juan de Dios Peza. Once there, the aforesaid young man tore and burned a profusion of documents he had accumulated over the previous years and finally fell asleep towards the break of day. That morning, as witness accounts inform us, the young man awoke much later than usual, washed and returned to his room. Approximately half an hour later he was seen conversing with fellow medical students in the halls of the ex-convent turned dorm rooms. As the morning turned into noon, witnesses later testified and others verified, Acuña returned to his room where he arranged several letters and a note stating, “[i]n the very least I should go into details as to the cause of my death, but I don’t believe anyone would care; suffice it to say that no one but myself is the guilty one—December 6, 1873.” Less than an hour later, after alarms had been raised across the dorm halls and some of Acuña’s close medical friends attempted to revive his lifeless body, the acrid smell and taste of bitter almonds confirmed what everyone present feared; Acuña, aged twenty-four, had ingested a potent solution of potassium cyanide.
According to de Dios Peza, Acuña’s body was tended by the staff and students of the Medical College who proceeded to transfer it to the college’s ex chapel where his wake was apparently held. As news of the young man’s death spread and dozens of funerary wreaths and bouquets came to the school’s chapel, all of the literary circles and men of letters in Mexico paid their tributes to Acuña. Of note, among those that paid tribute to Acuña, there was the great Ignacio Ramirez, who on hearing of the young man’s death wrote, “it is a star that has gone out”, and the now almost forgotten Leopoldo Río de la Loza. Several days later, as a great congregation of mourners accumulated around the plaza adjacent to the medical college, Acuña’s body was led by a great procession into the local cemetery where his funeral was held. Amongst those present at his funeral there were his faithful classmates and the already luminary Justo Sierra who on rising to speak about the deceased, recited:
Palms, triumphs and Laurels, sweet aurora
Of future happiness to come, everything in one hour
Of solitude and disgust
you exchanged for the sad
right to die, my good friend!
Then he, like many present, broke anew in tears.
A year later, Acuña’s very first poetry collection would appear in print. Compiled by friends from magazines, literary journals, and letters, this posthumous work would quickly reach every region of the Spanish-speaking world. While it may be safe to say to that the nature of Acuña’s suicide (and the implication thereby of a certain young society lady by the name of Rosario de la Peña) was an element that helped popularize Acuña’s posthumous work, it is equally true, and more pertinent in this case, to say that the young man’s poetic gifts were dully recognized by the reading public of his time. As literary historian Emilio Carrilla informs us, along with the poetry of Gustavo Becquer, and Jose de Espronceda, Acuña’s poetry, grew to become the poetic voice of an entire generation at the turn of the last century. By 1893, the prodigious literary critic and historian Menendez y Pelayo had proclaimed Acuña’s poetry as being “one of the most vigorous works of inspiration that has honored the Spanish poetry of our times…[in it, Acuña] can change the harshest and most desolating doctrine into a flood of immortal harmonies.”
To this day the popularity of the poetry and legend that surround Acuña, have managed to persist throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world. “Nocturne, to Rosario”, Acuña’s best known poem, has inspired multiple song adaptations throughout the years and in 1992 the renowned Mexican film director Matilde Landeta broke her thirty-year hiatus from the film industry to direct Nocturno a Rosario, an interpretative film that sought to capture Mexico’s belle époque through two of its best-known personages. Following the legend that Acuña committed suicide after being rejected by renown literary muse Rosario de la Peña, to whom his famous poem is dedicated, at the heart of the film Landeta places the supposed love affair between Acuña and the wealthy young girl. While many of the assumptions raised in the film about the private life of the poet may be justified, the two-dimensional image that prevails once again is that of the sighing romantic young man who is perennially in love. Acuña’s poetic oeuvre, however, reveals a far deeper personality. As literary historian Ramón D. Perés states of Acuña’s life and work, his poetry is, “all love at times, although everything is weary skepticism from his precocious disenchantments…yet always speaking of God, in who he believes; then he remembers that he is a medical student, and he presents himself cold, rational….” It is in fact this mixture of idealism, religious faith, and rational skepticism that permeates much of Acuña’s life and work.
A post-romanticist by definition, Acuñas poetry leaves behind the bombastic notes of the early romantic poets of independence, and settles into the poetry of sentiment. Measuring truth and the world through feeling, Acuña’s poetry is an extremely personal one. As such it falls under that very characteristic brand of poetry that evolved during those late years of the nineteenth century when romanticism began to fade into modernism and which Emilio Carilla describes as, “an intimate romanticism, measured, sedimentous, which nips excesses, and halts the frantic race” of the century. Influenced by poets such as Heine, Hugo, Espronceda, and Zorrilla, the truth that Acuña’s poetry aspired to, and the truth that he comes to solely recognize is the truth of family life and companionship. Perhaps homesick and away from his native state, Acuña in his poetry always returns to the ideal of the home life as he remembered it when he left his native Coahuila for the Mexico City at the mere age of sixteen. Under this overarching sentiment, fame, glory and wealth become but mere illusions that only a fool would accept as genuine recompense in life. Following this impulse and train of thought in “Traces of a Good Humor” Acuña writes:
“It would be very foolish
to exchange a kiss for a crown;
Further, since I don’t proclaim to be wise
I stick to what I am, of flesh and bone
And prefer a kiss over smoke
Which at last, at the end, that’s what Glory is, and nothing else.
(64 lines 30-35).
The jocose and direct tone Acuña takes in these lines reveal the rational medical student, who is conscious of the physical needs of the body. It is this sense of materialism that carries the young poet to find his ideal not in glory, wealth or literary accolades but in the concreteness of family life.
Having felt his religious believes shake and grow weakened by the science of his day, all his faith in God becomes projected onto the image of love and family life. As Gonzalez Peña states,
“[Acuña] had come from the patriarchal atmosphere of his province; and the flower of his youth opened in a now world where science was being elevated to the category of dogma. Nevertheless, materialism and skepticism could not stifle the pure, simple, superlatively human expression of his feelings.”
That human expression of his feelings is in Acuña’s poetry his deep devotion and faith to love. He was weighed the significance of a godless life and the only thing of any value in our transitory existence is the immediacy of the home and family. This is the sublimation of the materialist. It this then this ideal of love that in turn reflects and color Acuña’s profound desire to belief in God. In “Then and Now”, Acuña writes, “My soul is a sanctuary in which ruins/ Without a lamp and without God, / invoke hope, and hope like the sun’s sight, / penetrates its interior/ as it would the depths of an ancient grave.” Then further on, as if continuing the same thought in “Dry Leaves” he writes, “Ah! It is enough to see you/ for me to love God, believing in you!”
Unlike the saint who finds the validity of the world through god, Acuña, the skeptic and materialist must find proof of God and all things spiritual through the validity of life, which he measures entirely through love. Having discarded science, glory, wealth, and god he holds on to love, and love is the only thing that can make him fully believe in the positive materialism which he desperately seeks. For unlike Wordsworth who found spiritual solace in nature or Keats who found it in art, Acuñas skepticism prevents him from finding solace in anything that he cannot immediately feel. Coming from a long Hispanic poetic tradition where the pastoral has reached rococo heights of pretentions, in nature Acuña can only see cruelties, postures and discomforts. Witnessing the flight of the butterfly, in poems such as “Nothing Over Nothing,” and then witnessing the innocent bird devour the butterfly, Acuña knows the bird is not that innocent and of nature he writes, “There is not a Sr. of Mrs. who does not already know an Aurora”, then as if mocking his own endeavors as a poet he continues, “Instead of being original/ this verses fall short of being / Espronceda plagiarisms” (147 lines 143-44). It is a skepticism that borders on nihilism, yet it is only the last disillusionment of the illusion of love the pushes the poet to suicide.
And despite all that Acuña was a romantic because he dedicated all of his poetic life to sentiment. For him art, life and feeling could not be separated from each other and yet, for him that feeling did not lead him into the sublime, but to his overarching loneliness. Not believing in God, Science, Art and Money he surrenders all of his faith to love, marriage and the home. Not realizing that love, marriage and the home are in themselves a fantasy and an illusion, as much as the glory, fame and wealth he decried; the tragedy of Acuña’s life is that he never gave himself the chance to realize this.
The New Translations
“Nocturne, To Rosario” / “Nocturno a Rosario”
Well then! I must say to you
that I adore you,
Say that I love you
with all my heart;
That I suffer
and cry aplenty,
That I can’t bear this much;
and this imploring scream,
Implores you and seeks you out,
on my last illusion’s behalf.
I want you to know
that for many days now,
I’ve been ill and pallid
That my nights are dark,
so dark, and somber,
That all my hopes
That I’ve lost track even
of whence the future rose.
At night, when I lay
my temples on the pillow
And towards another world
my soul seeks to return,
I walk much, so much,
and at the journey’s end,
My mother’s forms
become lost in nothingness,
And your image
to my soul returns.
I understand your kisses
shall never be mine,
I understand that in your eyes
I shall never see myself;
And I adore you,
and in my mad and burning deliriums
I bless your disdain,
and your deflections love,
For instead of adoring you less thereby,
my love for you further grows.
And at times I wish to confer
to you my eternal farewell,
Erase you from my memory,
and from this passion flee;
But all in vain,
for the soul cannot forget you;
Bit of my life,
what would you have me do,
What would you have me do
with this heart of mine?
after the shrine was finalized,
Your burning flambeau,
your veil on the altar,
And the morning’s sun
behind the bell tower,
The sparkling torch,
the smoking censer,
And already in the distance,
the home’s doors opened wide…
How beautiful it would have been,
for both of us
To have lived united
and enamored underneath that roof;
You always loving,
and I always satisfied,
Both of us one breast,
both of us a single soul,
And between us,
my mother like a God.
Imagine how beautiful
the hours of life would have been!
How sweet and gorgeous
our terrestrial journey
In likewise manner would’ve been!
And I dreamed of that,
my sweet betrothed;
And hallucinating in so much,
with a rattled soul,
I thought of being good for you, only you.
God knows that was
my most gorgeous dream,
My desire and my hope,
my elation and my bliss;
God knows that I figured
all my determination
In naught else but to love you
in that joyous home
Which enveloped me
in its kisses from my birth!
That was my hope…
but since the deep abyss
That divides us
opposes its scintillating light,
Good bye for the last time,
love of my life;
Light of my darkness,
my flowers’ essence;
The poet’s lyre,
my very youth, good bye!
“Before a Corpse” / “Ante un cadaver“
Here you are, before the dissecting table,
Where the horizon of the sciences
The extension of its limits swells.
Here, where rigid experience
Comes to dictate its superior laws
To which existence is subjected.
Here, where the celestial sphere
Spills its flares; the light which extinguishes
Distinctions between master and slave.
Here, where the fable goes silent
And the voice of deeds arises
And superstitions fade.
Here, where science makes haste
To read the solution of the problem
Which its very pronouncement scares.
She, who bears the reason through norm,
And on your lips, craves to hear
The august truth of the supreme voice.
Here it is now…after the impious fight
In which you managed to break the extremes,
The prison which held you into pain.
The light of your pupils no longer exists,
Your vital mechanism rests inert
Having resisted meeting its objectives.
“Misery and naught else!” they’ll say,
Who belief that life’s empire
Ends where death begins.
And supposing your mission ended
Will approach you, and in their eyes
They’ll send their eternal farewells.
But no!…Your mission isn’t complete here,
Nor is nothingness the point at which we are born,
Nor is nothingness the point at which we die.
Existence is circular and we do wrong,
When wanting to exact measurement
We assign as its limits the cradle and the grave.
The mother is solely the mold on which
We take our form, the evanescent form
With which we traverse the ungrateful life.
But neither that one forms the first
Which our being adorns, or is it
Its last, when it finally dies.
And there, onto life, in extraneous form,
Rain and summer’s power
Will make fecund with seeds your silt.
And rising from root to bud
You will go from the orchard to witness
Above ground the sovereign lab.
Perhaps returned changed as wheat,
To the same sad home, where the sad wife,
Who without bread, dreams of you.
In so far as the fissures of your fossa
Will see its depths open,
As larva turned to butterfly,
Which the trials of its uncertain flight
Will, to the unhappy bed of you loves,
Carry your death’s kiss.
And amid those internal changes,
Your cranium, full of a new life,
Instead of thoughts will bring forth flowering buds,
On which chalice, hidden will shine
The tear with which perhaps your love
Accompanied the farewell to your good bye.
The grave is the end of the journey,
Because the grave is where lies dead
The pent up flame of your soul.
But in that mansion, at which door
Our breath fades, there is another breath
Which again harkens us to life.
There strength and talent end,
There pains and pleasures end,
There faith and feeling end.
There terrestrial ties end,
And amassed the idiot and the sage
Sink into equalities’ terrain.
But there, where the spirit is depleted
And the mechanism dies, there
The being that perishes shoots forth another life.
The powerful and fecund abyss
Of the ancient organism takes hold,
And shapes and makes of the other an organic whole.
Abandon the righteous history,
And name without prudency, indifferent;
So may that name become eternal or simply end.
He, solely collects the mass
And changes objects, changes forms,
Takes charge, that it shall live perpetually forth.
The grave guards only bones,
But life, in its mortuary vault
Secretly Continues to feed.
That to the end of this transitory existence
To which our eagerness so much holds on to,
Matter, immortal like glory,
Changes forms; but never perishes.
 Juan De Dios Peza, “Prólogo De Juan De Dios Peza a Las Obras De Acuña,” in Biografía De Manuel Acuña, http://www.los-poetas.com, n.d., Web. 01 May 2015.
 Emilio Carilla, El Romanticismo En La America Hispanica, 2nd ed. Vol. 1 & 2, Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1967, 2; 154.
 Carlos González Peña, Marcelino Menendez Y Pelayo, History of Mexican Literature, Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1968, 279.
David R. Maciel, “Serpientes Y Escaleras: Contemporary Cinema of Mexico, 1976-1994,” in New Latin American Cinema, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997, 111.
Ramón D. Perés, Historia De La Literatura Española E Hispanoamericana, Barcelona: Editorial Ramón Sopena, 1960, 576.
Emilio Carilla, El Romanticismo En La America Hispanica, 2nd ed. Vol. 1 & 2, Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1967, 2; 151.
Carlos González Peña, Marcelino Menendez Y Pelayo, History of Mexican Literature,Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1968, 278.
Manuel Acuña, Poesías Completas De Manuel Acuña, Mexico DF: Grafimex Impresores, 2001, 103.
 Ibid, 216.
Acuña, Manuel. Poesías Completas De Manuel Acuña. Mexico DF: Grafimex Impresores, 2001. Print.
Carilla, Emilio. El Romanticismo En La America Hispanica. 2nd ed. Vol. 1 & 2. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1967. Print.
De Dios Peza, Juan. “Prólogo De Juan De Dios Peza a Las Obras De Acuña.” Biografía De Manuel Acuña. Www.los-poetas.com, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Maciel, David R. “Serpientes Y Escaleras: Contemporary Cinema of Mexico, 1976-1994.”
New Latin American Cinema. Ed. Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. 94-120. Print
Martinez Rodriguez, Jose Luis. Antología De La Poesía Hispanoamericana. Ed. Bois, Julio Caillet. Madrid: Aguilar, 1965. Print.
Peña, Carlos González, and Marcelino Menendez Y Pelayo. History of Mexican Literature. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1968. Print.
Perés, Ramón D. Historia De La Literatura Española E Hispanoamericana. Barcelona: Editorial Ramón Sopena, 1960. Print.